In May, after researching my mother’s family ancestry in Sweden, I went to Sicily with my husband for a family wedding, to ancient Carini where my father was born.
Sweden and the gracious Swedes were new to me. Going to Carini was like coming home.
One of the best decisions my husband and I ever made was to travel to Sicily with our boys to reconnect with my father’s family in Carini. Over the years, we went back when we could – a couple of times with my father, and once with extended family. We watched my cousin Giuseppe grow up, along with several of his cousins.
Last spring we were thrilled to receive Giuseppe and Eloisa’s wedding invitation in the mail. Since the wedding was to be shortly after my Sweden trip, I decided to make it an extended journey.
Giuseppe and Eloisa’s wedding reception was within view of Segesta, built around 420 BC and one of the best preserved Doric temple in all of Europe. Overlooking the Gulf of Castellammare, the temple is a mystery, because it appears to have been abandoned before it was completed. And although the Greeks claim it was built by an Athenian architect, during that time period the area was likely inhabited by people indigenous to Sicily, and not the Greeks, though they were elsewhere on the island.
(Some scholars believe that parts of the epic Greek poem the Odyssey are set in Sicily – that Odysseus encountered Cyclops off the eastern coast, for example, and Scylla and Charybdis in the Strait of Messina.)
At any rate, I was thrilled to see the temple of Segesta once again; our first time in Sicily, in 2001, Giuseppe’s family took us there on a sightseeing trip. At the reception, the sun setting behind the illuminated temple gave an air of timelessness to the festivities. I could imagine the spirits of the ancients looking down on us as we celebrated with Giuseppe and Eloisa, and their friends and families.
This is what I read when I was in Sicily:
Our airbnb was in the old city of Carini. It had a small, shuttered balcony that opened to the noisy, busy, colorful street, almost like another room. We made friends with the neighbors across the strada and chatted with them from our balcony in the evening. Here, a mamma and her figlio, with the neighborhood dogs chiming in:
We’ve been lucky to have been able to travel to see extended family and our ancestral lands. I feel as though I have a second home far away and a fuller, more complete identity, anchored in a specific time and place in history. I hope we’ve given that to our sons, too, and that the younger generations – in Italy and Sweden – will someday come to visit their cousins in America.
“Take a moment and look at your life from the perspective of being an ancestor. You are with those who came before you and those yet to be born looking back at your descendants as they live their lives moving forward in time. Imagine that you can see your entire lineage from the first born to the last in your line. Imagine yourself as an ancestor, one of the thousands whose love expresses itself and is embodied now in your descendants. Who we are at this moment in time is a result of the countless generations that have come before and a response to the generations that will follow….. – Sandra Easter,Jung and the Ancestors
“Every individual born to the Dagara [an African ethnic group] is mentored and supported into maturing into an adult who fulfills their purpose. From the moment a person is born, others within the community had a responsibility to assist that person in delivering their gift to the world. Everyone in the community is responsible for and has an integral role in insuring that each person’s genius is awakened, nurtured, and mentored. If this is not done, the person as well as their genius dies. If any individual’s gift is not delivered it then falls to that person’s descendants to do so.” – Sandra Easter,Jung and the Ancestors: Beyond Biography, Mending the Ancestral Web
Ivar Emmanuel Häkansson, my grandfather, was born in Fritsla in 1892 and lived there the first few years of his life. Of my four grandparents, I knew the least about him. Grandpa (or Morfar, as we called him when we were children) had been a loner, a hard worker but a solitary man who liked his drink. By the time I knew him, he rarely spoke. Morfar had no family back in Sweden with whom he kept in touch, unlike my grandmother, who exchanged letters with her Swedish siblings over the years. When I began my trip to Sweden, I knew only that Morfar had apparently been orphaned in a flu epidemic and sent to live with his maternal aunt and uncle in another Swedish town, Orby, at a young age.
I had mixed feelings as Andrew and I approached Fritsla, a small, quiet town nestled in the countryside. My Swedish friend, Amelie, whom I’d met on the plane, and her father, Pär, had done some research about my grandfather’s family, and they emailed biographical information to me when I was in Stockholm. I’d learned my grandfather’s childhood had been filled with more grief and loss than I’d expected.
They had discovered that Morfar’s family lived in an area of Fritsla known as Aratorp, where my great grandfather, Håkan Nilsson, had been a farm hand. Using Google Maps, Andrew and I headed to that area first. We couldn’t find a specific house or farm, but there was a street with the word Aratorp in it, and we followed that until it became a dirt road ending in meadows and woods. Perhaps my grandfather had been born on a farm or in a tenant home that had once stood nearby.
Next, we went to Fritsla Church near the center of town, where Morfar had probably been baptized. It was closed, so we walked around the cemetery, reading the old Swedish names on the headstones. If one or both of my grandfather’s parents had died in Fritsla, they were probably buried here.
By this time, it was noon. Andrew and I decided to stop at the café in the village for lunch, and that is when we got our lucky break.
Centralkafét is an old-fashioned café attached to a gorgeous little floral shop, Fritsla Blomsteraffär. While Andrew and I picked out what we wanted from the sandwiches and salads in the plate glass display case, I mentioned that my grandfather had been born in Fritsla, and we were researching family history.
After we finished eating, our waitress, Camilla, introduced herself, as did Ulrika, the baker and florist. They wanted to know more about my grandfather. Before we knew it, they’d called the church, and they’d called someone else.
“The church is open for cleaning this afternoon,” Camilla said. “You can go in and see it.”
“And you should meet Gunvor,” Ulrika added. “She’s our local history expert. She said you can head over now if you’d like.”
Gunvor’s home turned out to be one of the quaint older homes Andrew and I had admired while driving around. She and her daughter, Irene, were gracious and welcoming, and I felt an immediate connection. Gunvor, especially, had the strong, patrician bearing and the lilting Nordic accent I remembered from the ladies who attended our Swedish Lutheran church when I was growing up near Cleveland, Ohio.
Gunvor soon realized we needed a true expert’s help and so she called Jan-Åke Stensson, the local genealogist who, believe it or not, came right over with his laptop and his extensive knowledge of Swedish ancestral records. Gunvor, Irene, Jan-Åke, Andrew, and I sat at the kitchen table and talked for a couple of hours.
Jan-Åke told us about Swedish history – how a quarter to a third of the Swedish population immigrated to America. My grandfather, though, had not been part of this great migration, according to Jan-Åke. He left Sweden later, during a time of greater prosperity. (Given my grandfather’s situation – as you’ll see below – I understand why he wanted a fresh start in America.) Jan-Åke also explained Sweden’s confusing surname conventions before 1900, which makes doing Swedish ancestral research challenging. We talked about the many Swedes of my grandfather’s time who owned no land of their own, but were farm hands and tenant farmers.
We learned about Irene and Gunvor’s relatives, too, and how the great exodus from Sweden split their family tree. Irene told us her grandfather (or possibly her great grandfather – I don’t recall) had an enormous number of siblings – well over a dozen. Every single one of them – except for her (great) grandfather – came to America. Because of this, a loneliness haunted him all of his life. I’d never really thought about the personal losses incurred by those who stayed behind. As Irene told us this story, I had a sense of a culture splitting in half, and the psychic cost on both sides. Sitting next to my son, I was moved by the idea that, over a hundred years later, we were reconnecting with our lost culture and ancestry.
Before we departed, Irene gave us a tour of her mother’s gardens and their rustic outdoor dining room. I wanted very much to linger and deepen our new friendships – I told myself I’d return one day. Andrew and I prolonged our Fritsla stay a bit by returning to the café for fika (Swedish dessert and coffee) and to tell Camilla and Ulrika about our visit with Gunvor and Irene.
I had a sense of a culture splitting in half, and the psychic cost on both sides.
A week or so later, Jan-Åke sent me the biographical information below, confirmed independently by Amelie and her father, as well as by my cousin, Jan.
When we’d visited Älekulla with Cousin Jan, where my grandfather’s ancestors went back several generations, I’d sensed a deep connection to the land, church, and community.
But my grandfather’s family, headed by his father, Häkan Nilsson, was buffeted by illness, uprootedness, and, likely, poverty. My great grandfather, Häkan, moved from job to job to job (mostly as a tenant farmer and a farm hand) and from town to town, trying to support the family.
I hadn’t known that my grandfather had so many siblings. Morfar was the youngest of seven children – and by the time he was nine years old, all of his brothers and sisters and both of his parents would be dead.
Eight years before Morfar was born, Häkan and his wife, Edela (or Edla) Brita Lardsdotter, lost a son, Karl, at age 7 months, when they were living in the town of Orby.
They moved to Fritsla in February of 1892 with at least five of their six children, and my grandfather was born on June 5.
Morfar’s oldest brother – Häkan and Edela’s firstborn, Johannes – died at age 19 in Orby (cause unknown) when Morfar was two years old. I do not know if Johannes was emotionally close to my grandfather, or if they barely knew each other.
When my grandfather was four years old, his father, Häkan, died of tuberculosis, on June 14, 1896 in Fritsla – a few months after he had started a new job as a farm hand, and a week after my grandfather’s birthday. Eleven days after Häkan died, my grandfather’s brother, Linus, died of tuberculosis at the age of sixteen. Three weeks after that, on July 16, my grandfather’s sister, Anna Eleanora, died of tuberculosis at the age of eighteen. (As I write this, it is the 123rd anniversary of her death.)
Three years later, my grandfather moved to Orby with his two sisters, Hilda and Josefina, and his widowed mother, Edela. His mother died of an unknown cause six months later on April 9, 1900. Perhaps she died in the flu epidemic my grandfather spoke of.
Morfar, now 8, and Josefina, 11, were sent to live with their maternal aunt and her husband, Lotta and Johan August Svensson. Morfar’s sister, Hilda, age 15, was sent to be a maid for a local tenant farmer, where she died of an unknown cause a little over a year later.
According to local historical records, Morfar’s uncle, August, was well liked by the neighborhood children, and he once helped save a girl who was drowning in a bog. He had only one arm, and had been a railway builder and night guard at the local power plant. When Morfar and his sister, Josefina lived with him, he was a tenant farmer, owning no land, with children of his own to raise. Who knows what my grandfather’s uncle was really like, because Morfar had always said his uncle was mean.
On May 11, 1902, Josefina died at age 13 of an unknown cause, and my grandfather lost his last living family member. Pär and Amelie found this quote by the pastor in the local history records: “The parents of the girl are both dead, and herself, she is destitute!” (“Flickans båda föräldrar äro döda, och själv är hon utfattig!”)
My grandfather turned nine a few weeks later.
“The parents of the girl are both dead, and herself, she is destitute!”
Morfar left Sweden forever on April 4, 1912 when he was nineteen, bound for America. He’d always said he was supposed to sail on the Titanic, but he was delayed, possibly by a strike in England. He sailed on the Mauretania instead, a few days behind the Titanic, probably third class. His ticket would have cost about $17.
I’m still checking dates, but the Mauretania left Liverpool, England on April 10, bound for New York a few days behind the Titanic. The Mauretania happened to be carrying the Titanic’s cargo manifest. It was docked in Queensland, Ireland when word came that the Titanic was sinking. First-class passengers held a vigil for the Titanic’s victims and raised $500 for the families. Second-class passengers held their own vigil.
I wonder if word came down to the third-class passengers in steerage about the Titanic. If somehow it did, I can only imagine what Morfar must have thought. Maybe he’d always had survivor’s guilt for being the only one in his family still alive. Perhaps he’d always expected the other shoe to drop – that, inevitably, he’d lose his life, too.
In 1997 or 1998 near Cleveland, Ohio, some of Morfar’s many great grandchildren gathered in their pajamas in front of the TV to watch The Titanic. While Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio hoped desperately for a lifeboat in those icy waters, I can now imagine another scene – a nineteen-year-old Swedish boy, somewhere below deck on another boat far away. Maybe, upon finding out about the Titanic, Morfar looked upon his having sailed on the Mauretania instead as a sign, a gigantic, long-awaited affirmation from the universe. Yes, he was supposed to live. A whole new life awaited him in America.
“Each individual life matters. From the perspective of the ancestors, each descendent is the whole reason they have existed at all. We are each individual ‘historic fragments’ whose lives are interwoven into the lives of our ancestors reaching back to the beginning of creating. Knowing where one comes from in the broadest and deepest sense informs who one is and the direction of one’s life. Within these connections, as one finds oneself in the crowd of ancestral spirits, the meaning of our suffering is revealed in ways that assist us in embracing our fate and embodying and fulfilling our destiny. Simply said – the ancestors, as part of our larger community, support and guide us in living the life we were born to live. This work connects us in ever widening circles to our origins, has the potential to reconnect us with the soul of the world and ultimately leads us back to ourselves and our individual, unique and necessary life.” – Jung and the Ancestors
Darlingside recently came to central Oregon and they are wonderful. Some of their lyrics inspired me to imagine what Ivar Emmanuel Häkansson might have been thinking as he left Sweden forever, made his way by train to England, and boarded the Mauretania for America. Are there stories in your own family history you are perhaps meant to unearth?
Many thanks to Amelie Sandin, Pär Sandin, Jan-Åke Stensson, Jan Andersson, Camilla Haglund, Ulrika Söderhagen, Gunvor Johansson, Irene Svensson, Adam Nyman, and all the kind Swedes we met. The few hours we spent together were too short. Thank you to Sandra Adamson Easter for writing Jung and the Ancestors, a treasure I’m still unpacking.
Next up, in my final post about exploring our ancestry, I’ll write about our trip to Sicily (my father’s ancestral land), my cousin’s Sicilian wedding, and what my son and I gained from our family heritage search in Sweden.
I’d just have to trespass. It seemed no one was home, and I’d come so far.
Some 4,949 miles, according to Google Maps, from central Oregon to Långås, Sweden – hoping to find at least one of the three farmhouses Mormor (Swedish for maternal grandmother) had lived in before coming to Cleveland, Ohio when she was sixteen in 1914.
My son, Andrew, and I were standing in front of one of her former homes, a classic red Swedish farmhouse that matched the photo I’d kept buried with other family papers in a box for years. We were here thanks to my incredibly kind and knowledgeable Swedish fifth cousin, Jan, whom we’d connected with after my nephew and I had DNA tests.
After Jan wrote to us, I sent him family photos and some facts about my maternal Swedish grandparents. A few days after I arrived in Sweden, Jan sent me the GPS coordinates for one of Mormor’s childhood homes. And here we were – in stunningly beautiful Halland county, flat and lush green, on Sweden’s west coast.
A few housing developments dotted the landscape, but mostly this was still wide open agricultural land with old, old farmhouses like my grandmother’s, and squat, black windmills built long before my grandmother’s time, with modern wind turbines close by as well.
It was late afternoon, mid May, but the sun was still high, this being Sweden with its long days. I stepped into the yard while Andrew stayed behind the property line taking pictures.
I walked around the grounds, marveling at the obvious care with which the old exterior architectural details had been preserved.
I took my time, communing with this ancestral home and the spirits of those who’d lived there once upon a time, marveling that Mormor had left 105 years ago, never to return. Did her hands touch this old doorknob? Maybe she had the key for this old lock. Where would the garden have been that she must have helped tend?
What would Mormor think of her granddaughter and great grandson making a pilgrimage to this place? I wanted to leave the owners a note – we still had time to return the next morning before the next leg of our trip – but for once in my life I had no pen or pencil.
Jan had also given me the name and approximate location of another house where he said my grandmother had been born. I had no photo for this house, or any other information besides what Jan had given me. Andrew and I decided to drive there, next. I didn’t think we could top what we’d just seen – but I was wrong.
At this second location, a cluster of farmhouses, Andrew and I stood debating. Which of the houses would have been my grandmother’s birthplace? I thought it must be the house with the old sign – Lönestig gård – the name Jan had given me – but Andrew thought it might be one of the houses across the road. As we approached those homes, I debated whether I should knock on one of the doors.
Just then, a woman came across the meadow, walking five magnificent dogs – two fluffy, snow-white Pyrenees and three sheep dogs. She studied us – we were obviously strangers in these parts. I introduced myself and Andrew.
“We’re from the United States,” I said. On a hunch, I decided to show her another old photo I’d had for years, of yet a third farmhouse my grandmother had lived in, directly on the sea. I’d always loved the photo’s romantic aura, with seabirds, rocks and water.
“We’re looking for this farm,” I said, taking out my smartphone and pulling up the photo. “It was where my grandmother – my mormor – lived.”
Louise gazed at the photo for a moment. “I know this house,” she said. “I’ll take you there.”
This is where Louise took us:
We stayed for a couple of hours, talking, talking, talking with the current owners. We met Lars, who lives in one portion of the house with his wife, and Lennart, who resides in what was once the boathouse. The farmhouse is directly on the sea – we walked way, way out on the rocks. Lars told us many species of seabirds nest in this protected area. It was still bright daylight even though it was nearly 8 pm; it felt as though the universe was making the day longer just for us, to give us more time to linger.
Lennart invited us into his portion of the house. He dug out a regional history book in Swedish, and there we found a photo of my great grandparents. Lennart gave me the book as a gift.
After our visit with Lennart and Lars and the old farmhouse, Louise invited us to her home nearby, where she raises prize-winning sheepdogs. When I stepped into her old classic Swedish farmhouse I was astonished; it was like walking into one of the Carl Larsson prints I’d hung in my upstate New York home for decades.
Louise has an old, Swedish floor-to-ceiling stove that heats the entire house, and a spacious Swedish kitchen and dining room with a wall of windows to let in as much light as possible on dark winter days.
And best, best of all, a few days later Louise connected me with two of my closest Swedish relatives!! I haven’t seen them yet – that’s for the next trip.
In everyone we met on our sojourn, I sensed a strong, deep love for this corner of Scandinavia and it’s beautiful natural world.
Countless thanks to Jan, Louise, Lars, Lennart, and all our new Swedish friends who helped my son and me dive deeper into our family history.
Below is a book about how knowing little about our ancestors may not be the best thing, and how learning about them can heal us. I’ll let you know when I finish reading what I think and how its insights might impact my family history research. So far, a couple of chapters in, I’m fascinated.
More family history discoveries to come on my next post, about Morfar (Grandpa).
What I was reading, etc, etc:
I read The Royal Physician’s Visitby Per Olov Enquist as I travelled, a fictionalized account of the mentally ill Danish King Christian VII, his young wife Caroline Mathilde, and the king’s physician (Johann Struensee) who tried to enact Enlightenment reforms that were not appreciated by the people. Later in my trip, I bought The Wandering Pine,an autobiographical novel I haven’t read yet.
Below are scenes from Waldemarsudde in Stockholm, the former home of Prins Eugens, now a gorgeous museum. My friend, Darlene, and I lingered a long time in this beautiful place. The day we visited there was an exhibit about an art colony in Grez, France, where many late 19th century and early 20th century Swedish artists went to paint. The lower left photo is part of a Carl Larsson painting of his wife, Karin (who was also an artist), and their child, entitled “Lilla Suzanne” (Little Susanne). The lower right painting is by William Blair Bruce, “Plein-Air Studio.”
I am in Sweden for the first time, exploring Stockholm with a friend, preparing for a journey west to research family ancestry with my son.
I’d like to find at least one, if not both, of the farms near Falkenberg and the North Sea where my grandmother (mormor) lived. I have photos, but no addresses.
I’d like to find out more about my mysterious grandfather (morfar), who was said to have been orphaned in a flu epidemic and who sailed for America a few days behind the Titanic, having missed that ill-fated ship because of a rail strike in England.
For the most part, seeing extended Swedish family will have to wait until another trip to Sweden, although we do have plans to meet up with a distant cousin. Many years ago when I was living in New York City, two Swedish cousins came to sightsee and I had a great time showing them around. They have both since passed away. My aunts visited Sweden a few decades ago and saw many cousins, but there is a new generation now whose addresses I don’t have.
We’ll see what I find this time around.
I brought with me the classic Swedish novel Doctor Glas, a brooding, psychological period piece that foreshadows modern-day themes of euthanasia and abortion. Margaret Atwood wrote the foreword to the paperback edition I have.
It has been intriguing to find turn-of-the-century landmarks, such as restaurants and museums, mentioned in the novel as we pass by them sightseeing around Stockholm.
And there is the unusual, early morning light of the 4 am Swedish spring sunrise – Atwood mentions eerie evening light below.
“Doctor Glass is deeply unsettling, in the way certain dreams are – or, no coincidence, certain films by Bergman….the eerie blue northern nights of midsummer combined with an unexplained anxiety, the nameless Kirkegaardean dread that strikes Glas at the most ordinary of moments….It occurs on the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it opens doors the novel has been opening ever since.” – Margaret Atwood
In Stockholm, I found my way to a city park, which gave way to an enchanting neighborhood of garden allotments along the water, with a public, tree-lined hiking path. I saw the following passage in Swedish on a plaque. I used Google Translate to decipher it. Because that tool is imperfect, I took liberties and edited the passage, so it’s not a literal translation:
“From the cottages on the slopes above the Eriksdalslunden, with its aspen and small flowering gardens, look down to the water and the dark wilderness of coniferous forests across thew way; it’s as if you’ve been transported to Sweden’s Norrland (Northland). – Architect Osvald Almqvist, 1930s
Birdsong and flowers in Eriksdaslunden:
I’ve been carrying around (and not so much reading) the poetry of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. Here, his poem about espresso:
The black coffee they serve outdoors/among tables and chairs gaudy as insects.
Precious distillations/filled with the same strength as Yes and No.
It’s carried out from the gloomy kitchen/and looks into the sun without blinking.
In the daylight a dot of beneficent black/that quickly flows into a pale customer.
It’s like the drops of black profoundness/sometimes gathered up by the soul,
giving a salutary push: Go!/Inspiration to open your eyes.
“Now the details are so clear to me, as if contained in a time capsule: the Hudson River in the darkness; the lights strung across the George Washington Bridge; the even timbre of my mother’s voice; the high plane of her cheekbone. Her long-fingered hands clasped in her lap. Institute. World-famous. Philadelphia.” Inheritance, Dani Shapiro
A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love
Over the next month or two, I’ll be looking at memoir through the lens of inheritance – genetic, ancestral, cultural, and otherwise. This, as I send off my DNA to be analyzed and journey to my two ancestral homes: Sweden, for the first time; and Sicily, where we’ve traveled as a family on several occasions while raising our sons.
I’m not sure what I’ll find in Sweden – more about that in upcoming posts. As for Sicily, I look forward to seeing my extended family again and their stunningly beautiful landscape, their small city on the sea which has been their ancestral home for centuries, and their warm, embracing culture.
I wanted to begin with Dani Shapiro’s jaw-dropping Inheritance because it is a “big,” important memoir, masterfully executed by a seasoned memoirist and novelist, about an increasingly common situation: more people are having their DNA analyzed, and some are getting huge surprises. Others are having long-held suspicions about maternity or paternity confirmed.
In Dani’s case, she learned that her father, whom she adored, was not her biological father. Which meant that her half sister was not her sister. Her beloved aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents were not her blood relations, either. Their rich, storied Jewish history and culture were not hers. (Or were they? Do true blood ties matter? Or can nurture make up the difference? Dani explores this.)
Some of Dani’s memories are especially resonant and ironic in hindsight:
At a writer’s retreat, when she was young, aspiring, and still unknown, a famous poet, observing her fair-skinned features, commented: “There’s no way you are Jewish. No way.”
At a backyard barbecue in their close-knit, Jewish neighborhood, a friend and Holocaust survivor said to a baffled, eight-year-old Dani: ““We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.”
After a photographic portrait session, three-year-old Dani was selected by Kodak for the Grand Central Station Colorama photo: the iconic, blonde, All-American (non-Jewish) child in front of the Christmas tree waiting eagerly for Santa.
But I found the following memory most haunting of all: it speaks of Dani’s staggering loneliness and bewilderment as an only child who had always had an innate, deeply felt sense she didn’t belong in her own family. Years after it happened, a neighbor recalled how one day Dani ran across the street to her house, frightened and crying. A home security alarm had gone off, and Dani’s babysitter had been apparently indifferent or unconcerned. The neighbor said she later called Dani’s mother, fed up with Dani’s endless string of babysitters and what she saw as parental neglect. I should say here that Dani had a challenging, contentious relationship with her mother who was, to say the least, a difficult woman.
Inheritance is an important memoir for many reasons; among other things, it raises moral and ethical questions that we, as a society, need to confront. I’ve written before about Jaron Lanier’s call for a more humanitarian focus as our culture becomes shaped and influenced in unforeseen ways by advances in technology. As genetic identities become easily obtainable, we’d do well to ask:
At what point does the quest to have children, at all costs, become morally questionable? (There is something deeply ironic about the profession chosen by Dani’s biological father, whose identity she goes on to discover.)
Is it not the basic human right of every individual to know his or her genetic identity? Is it ever right for that genetic identity to be legally or otherwise withheld?
Dani comes to think of her discovery as a form of trauma:
“Later, I will become a student of trauma. I will read deeply on the subject as a way of understanding the two opposite poles of my own history: the trauma my parents must have experienced in order to have made a decision so painful that it was buried at the moment it was made, and the trauma of my discovery of that decision more than half a century later.
It is the nature of trauma that, when left untreated, it deepens over time. I had experienced trauma over the years and had developed ways of dealing with it. I meditated each morning. I had a decades-long yoga practice. I had suffered other traumas – my parents’ car accident, Jacob’s childhood illness – and had come out the other side, eventually. What I didn’t understand was that as terrible as these were, they were singular incidents….
But this – the discovery that I wasn’t who I had believed myself to be all my life, that my parents had on some level, no matter how subtle, made the choice to keep the truth of my identity from me – this was no singular incident. It wasn’t something outside myself, to be held to the light and examined, and finally understood. It was inseparable from myself. It was myself.
Their trauma became mine – had always been mine. It was my inheritance, my lot.”
Memoir, as a genre, is coming into its own, partly because we are finally realizing how silence and secrets can deepen trauma, with impacts on individuals, families, communities, and our larger culture.
Coming up on Books Can Save a Life:
The Book of Help: A Memoir in Remedies, by Megan Griswold. There is something uniquely American and West Coast about this hilarious and deeply honest memoir by a fabulous writer. I’ll be looking at her familial and cultural “inheritance.”
My personal stake in memoir, my own writing of memoir, and what aspects of inheritance I’ll be searching for when I travel to Europe.
I didn’t expect to find this serendipitous connection between the two books on page 3 of The True Secret:
“Writing is for everyone, like eating and sleeping….Slaves were forbidden to learn to read or write. Slave owners were afraid to think of these people as human. To read and to write is to be empowered. No shackle can ultimately hold you.
To write is to continue the human lineage. For my grandfather, coming from Russia at seventeen, it was enough to learn the language. Today, it’s our responsibility to further the immigrant dream. To write, to pass on the dream and tell its truth. Get to work. Nothing fancy. Begin with the ordinary.”
Reading Goldberg’s words – get to work, nothing fancy, begin with the ordinary – I thought of Colum McCann’s writing, and of Lily Duggan, the fictitious Irish housemaid in TransAtlanticwho could not read or write and came penniless to America, whose daughter became an influential journalist and wrote about the first non-stop transatlantic flight, by Alcock and Brown from Newfoundland to Ireland (see this photo of their landing.)
Reading Goldberg’s words – no shackles can ultimately hold you – I thought of the former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and what he was able to accomplish thanks to his education.
Reading Goldberg’s words – it’s our responsibility to further the immigrant dream – I decided to ask my husband’s family if they identified with their Irish ancestry. Do they ever think about it, do they find it relevant to their lives, or do they see themselves as thoroughly American? If it’s our responsibility to further the immigrant dream (whether we consider ourselves writers or not), what does that mean and how do we do that?
One branch of my husband’s family came from Drummin Parish, Westport in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland. They immigrated to America after the English Earl of Aran evicted them and 40 other families from the land where they were tenant farmers. Nearly the entire town came to America, including their local priest, shortly after the Civil War. (Again, I think of TransAtlantic’s Lily Duggan and her deep and involuntary involvement in the Civil War.) They settled in Little Falls, New York, where they may have worked on the enlargement of the Erie Canal. Several of the brothers started a construction and masonry company and built the Beechnut Plant in Canajoharie, locks in the Mohawk River, and many buildings in the Mohawk Valley.
In our discussion, my father-in-law said he thought of himself as American, while his sister identified strongly with her Irish Catholic heritage. I wondered why there was such a difference in the same family. My sister-in-law thought it might be that it had been the man’s responsibility to be successful and earn a good living; to do that he had to shed his ethnicity in the workplace and become “American.” The woman had stayed home, preserving family rituals and traditions, passing on family history, perhaps assimilating more slowly.
Someone said she thought it unusual TransAtlantic’s Lily Duggan was not religious and not raised Catholic, and that led to a discussion of Catholic identity. My mother-in-law, like my husband’s aunt, strongly identified as Irish Catholic, and said when she was growing up being Catholic was more important than being Irish. She told the story of an uncle who wept bitterly when one of his children married a Protestant. Someone else commented that in the New Jersey town where he grew up, there was an Italian Catholic church, an Irish Catholic church, and a Polish Catholic church.
I wanted to know which TransAtlantic characters made the deepest impression. My father-in-law was especially taken with the brilliance, dedication, and integrity of Senator George Mitchell, who negotiated the peace talks in Northern Ireland. He did some research and found a fascinating interview with Mitchell after he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Almost all of us loved Lily, of course. Some of us didn’t know anything about Frederick Douglass and his connection with Ireland, and we’d never heard of Alcock and Brown or their amazing flight.
There were at least four generations at our family reunion. I’m so glad some of us shared the reading of TransAtlantic. I, for one, could have kept our discussion going longer than we had time for.
I don’t think we answered the question of how to further the immigrant dream or whether that is something we’ll even think about, and I don’t know how strongly the younger generation will identify with their Irish heritage. But I do find it fascinating how McCann weaves fiction and nonfiction together to form a narrative arc that extends through time and across generations. It’s much larger than any single life, and yet every individual has a role to play.
I think I see similar through-lines across time in my husband’s family, whether they’re passed down through familial and social influences, or encoded in their DNA, or both: a mechanical and engineering aptitude, keen intelligence, a predilection for risk-taking, an independent spirit, a deep curiosity about the world, and a strong sense of justice. When all of us get together for these reunions that are way too brief, you can see these commonalities.
Have you ever had a book club at your family reunion? If so, what did you read? Tell us about it in the comments.
If you would like to learn more about Natalie Goldberg, her new book, and the true secret of writing (I’m not going to spill the beans), listen to this wonderful 30-minute podcast on Natalie’s website.
Like me, Joelle is of Swedish descent. She writes of her great-grandmother, Emma, who had to leave her six daughters with foster families and neighbors in Sweden when she emigrated to America in 1919 after a family tragedy. Emma saved the money to send for her children and was eventually reunited with five of them.
Joelle has a hard time after her divorce, especially living only part-time with her young son, and scraping by on a tiny income. She wonders what her great-grandmother might teach her about weathering nearly unbearable troubles. Joelle wants to tap in to “the knowledge of our ancestors that still exists within us…It’s the instinctive way we respond to a sudden change in fortune, or to the many variations of loss.”
She quotes Wendell Berry, who writes of “the profound and mysterious knowledge that is inherited, handed down in memories and names and gestures and feelings, and in tones and inflections of voice.”
We’re getting ready for an extended family reunion, so I’ve been thinking about ancestry as I look forward to seeing several generations of my husband’s family. To celebrate and explore their Irish heritage, we’re going to be reading Colum McCann’s new novel, Transatlantic. More about that in my next post.
Family letters from Sweden
In the meantime, here are excerpts from letters sent to my grandmother from Sweden. Recently, my cousin and I had a few of them translated.
July 31, 1938
Dear Hulda and Family,
I would like to tell you all that Dad is gone from us forever. I have a heavy heart and am tired…his heart was in poor shape, so he died of a heart attack. He went so fast. We should all be prepared every hour that the Lord may wish to call us from here.
Dad was so good; we hope he is resting in the arms of the Savior. He went with me both to the Church and partook of the Communion. We hope that the good Lord’s mercy is so encompassing that he will accept all of us as his children.
We have our health. They have started to harvest rye so I am sitting here alone, writing….
Warm greetings from all of us to all of you from,
Skrea, February 19, 1969
Dear Sister Hulda,
Oskar is so well now that he could leave [the hospital] and he is riding around on his bicycle during the day. He is well off since he has a pension of more than 500 Crowns a month and has electric light and heating; the temperature is always 20 degrees C inside since heating is automatic…..
Annie is quick as she has always been. I…remember when she was going to school in Bölse and had a blue velvet cap which I thought was so beautiful. Hulda, maybe you also had that velvet hat…..
The kindest regards,
Stockholm, November 5, 1971
Dear Sister Hulda,
We sisters are wondering how you are doing following Ivar’s death…..
Considering the circumstances, Oskar is doing pretty well; you may know that his left leg was amputated last spring; he had a gangrene in it, so that was the only solution. He walks, takes strolls with the help of two goats…
You will probably celebrate Christmas at one of your children’s. We shall be with Inez, Bengt, and their four children on Christmas Eve. Gunilla, Lars and little Karin live in Luleå, but they are coming here during the Christmas holiday…
Signa and Carl
Dikesgård, December 1
Thank you for the letter and the Christmas greetings. How are you there so far away? Everyone asks Oskar if you are well and hale.
Here in Sweden it is raining only and the wind is blowing, but perhaps by Christmas it will be crisper….
I have my one leg, so I got an artificial one so I can walk a bit and I can drive a small car. I can no longer bike, it is hard, one has to do what one can. Soon it will be Christmas again; time goes by so quickly. I go home and sit in [illegible] to pass the time. I can read whatever I can put my hands on and pass the time.
With kind greetings and wishing you merry Christmas.
MEMOIRS WITH ANCESTRY MOTIFS
The Forest House, by Joelle Fraser
My Beautiful Genome, by Lone Frank
Ava’s Man,by Rick Bragg
The Shadow Man:A Daughter’s Search for Her Father, by Mary Gordon
If you can add to this list, please do so in the comments. And if you’ve read one of these books, let us know what you think about it.
State-of-the-art genetic testing can trace ancestry ten or eleven generations back, by looking at a man’s Y-chromosome DNA (which he inherits unchanged from his father) or the mitochondrial-DNA of a man or a women (which they inherit unchanged from their mother.)
Many people interested in genealogy are now supplementing their research with DNA testing of this kind.
As I read about Lone tracing her ancestry, I thought about trips to my father’s birthplace in Sicily I’ve taken with my family. My father was a baby when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean with my grandmother to Ellis Island. I heard the story many times growing up. My grandparents kept in touch with their relatives and returned to Sicily several times to visit.
Because they did, I’ve been able to travel to Carini to meet my father’s family, and my sons have had the opportunity to get to know their Sicilian cousins. That connection with the “old country” is continuing into the next generation, and I hope my children will keep it going with their children.
On our first trip, when we were exploring the cobblestone streets of Carini, we stopped in a bakery. There, we met a man who had my last name (my maiden name.) My family’s surname name is common in Carini.
That day our cousins took us to a nearby castle that had been built around 1075. In the evening we gathered for an elaborate, home-cooked meal at my father’s cousin’s villa in the old section of Carini. Like most Sicilian homes, it is walled off and gated. We sat at several picnic tables end-to-end next to a large, well-tended garden and talked late into the night.
I was steeped in antiquity but surrounded by modernity. Vespas and other traffic passed by outside the garden walls. I felt a sense of completion. Here were my roots, or half of them, anyway. I looked at the faces of my family and thought about the fact that Sicily has been conquered repeatedly, by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Normans, Spanish, and probably others. We have the blood of many races, and who knows what parts of the world our earliest ancestors came from.
I think people are looking for this sense of identity when they do genealogical research and probe their DNA for ancestry. We are, each of us, unique. Yet when it comes down to it, we all come from the same human family.
Have you had your DNA analyzed for ancestry? Are you considering it? If so and you’d like to share your thoughts and experiences, please do in the comments below.